BRUNSWICK, Maine - With connections to Harriet Beecher Stowe and Joshua Chamberlain, this town of 23,000 is sometimes called the place where the Civil War began and ended. But while Brunswick is a good destination for history buffs, it also has a lively restaurant scene, a first-rate art museum, and other attractions that earned it a spot on Smithsonian Magazine's 2012 list of America's best small towns.
As more proof that Brunswick may be having its moment in the spotlight, in November, Amtrak plans to extend the Downeaster route here, bringing regular passenger service to town for the first time in 52 years, with two daily round-trips from Boston and Portland. Lodging that's easy walking distance from the train and downtown include the newly opened Inn at Brunswick Station, with a restaurant, at 4 Noble St., and the Brunswick Inn, a B&B at 165 Park Row.
Brunswick owes much of its luster to Bowdoin College, which has brought many luminaries to this corner of Maine, from poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and "Scarlet Letter" author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who both graduated from Bowdoin in 1825, to artist William Wegman, who opened his new show, "Hello Nature," at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art on July 13.
JOSHUA CHAMBERLAIN AND THE CIVIL WAR
The town's Civil War history, which is getting renewed attention with the 150th anniversary of the war, also owes something to Bowdoin. Joshua Chamberlain, a Bowdoin graduate and professor, led the Union's defense of Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg. But Chamberlain may have had his finest moment as the brigadier general who accepted the Confederacy's surrender at Appomattox in 1865.
"He insisted the Union soldiers treat the Southerners with respect and had them salute their fallen countrymen," said Bob Cecil, a volunteer docent who shows a painting of the surrender scene on tours of Chamberlain's Brunswick home.
Chamberlain's house, at 226 Maine St., is full of fascinating artifacts, from his leather boots, neatly patched from shrapnel at Gettysburg, to the lead ball extracted from his hip after he nearly died in a battle in Virginia, to the saddle worn by his beloved war horse Charlemagne.
Chamberlain was later elected Maine's governor, then served as Bowdoin president. Visitors to his home ranged from Helen Keller to Longfellow, who stayed there during his 50th Bowdoin class reunion and who'd also lived there years earlier. Those who drop by these days include Angus King, now a U.S. Senate candidate and former Maine governor who some say resembles Chamberlain.
FIRST PARISH CHURCH AND HARRIET BEECHER STOWE
Other Chamberlain landmarks include his grave at Pine Grove Cemetery and a black bronze statue near campus, across from the First Parish Church. The towering white Gothic Revival church, one of 14 Brunswick sites on the National Register of Historic Places, was built in the 1840s. The congregation, which dates to 1717, holds regular Sunday services, but those who want a peek inside other times can inquire at the church office, 9 Cleaveland St.
Prominent speakers at the church have included Martin Luther King Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt, but visitors usually want to see where Stowe and Chamberlain sat. (Both pews are marked.) Chamberlain married the daughter of the church pastor, even though, according to Cecil, the minister "didn't think Chamberlain would amount to much."
Stowe's husband, a minister who taught at Bowdoin, sometimes preached at First Parish, which was a hotbed of abolitionism. Stowe was sitting in a pew in 1851 when she had a "vision" that became a scene in her novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin." The book so inflamed anti-slavery passions that when President Lincoln met Stowe, he reportedly called her the "little woman" who started the war.
The house where Stowe lived at 63 Federal St., a National Historic Landmark owned by Bowdoin, is not open to the public, but through the rear windows, you can see reproductions of letters Stowe wrote and a sign from when the house was the Stowe House and Motor Inn. Longfellow also lived here many years before Stowe; Hawthorne lived down the street at No. 76.
The Skolfield-Whittier House, a historic house open for tours at 161 Park Row, is "a time capsule," said volunteer docent Barbara Banner on a recent tour. "The house was occupied for 130 years by the same family and they never threw anything away."
Artifacts include Victorian artwork made from human hair, an ice chest filled with bars of soap, and photos of Margaret Chase Smith, who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1948. There's something a little spooky about the place, from the story of a child fatally burned when her clothing caught fire in the kitchen, to half-used ointments left on the bathroom counter as if someone might return at any moment. Jennifer Blanchard, executive director of the Pejepscot Historical Society, which owns both this house and Chamberlain's, gets regular calls from the security company about motion detectors going off. "It's either ghosts or bats," she said with a laugh.
WEGMAN AT THE MUSEUM
Another must-see is the Wegman show, on view through Oct. 21. The Bowdoin museum broke attendance records last summer with a show of Edward Hopper landscapes. Bowdoin College President Barry Mills says he's "confident there will be thousands more" coming to see "Hello Nature." Martha Stewart blogged about attending the opening; both she and Wegman summer in Maine.
For those tempted to dismiss Wegman as a gimmicky photographer who, as one passer-by was overheard to say, takes pictures of "dogs in dresses," this show may change your mind. While there are pictures of Wegman's famous Weimaraners canoeing and wearing red plaid flannel, other works range from riffs on classic '50s-style family camping scenes, to paintings Wegman created around quirky vintage postcards. Wegman said the show is "more or less but not always about nature, and more or less but not always about Maine."
Steps from the art museum, Bowdoin's Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum in Hubbard Hall tells the story of Arctic explorers Robert E. Peary, who reached the North Pole in 1909, and Donald MacMillan, both Bowdoin grads. Also on display now is a show of miniature Inuit carvings.
DINING, SHOPPING AND MORE
For dining, locals recommend everything from Greek and Italian food at Trattoria Athena, 25 Mill St., to old-school burgers at Fat Boy Drive In, 111 Bath Rd., to upscale fare at Clementine, 44 Maine St. "The great thing about the Brunswick restaurant scene is that it's such a mix," said Tracy Coughlin, spokeswoman for the Brunswick Downtown Association.
For sweets, try Gelato Fiasco, 74 Maine St., or Tontine Fine Candies, 143 Maine St. And for an innovative menu that combines Asian influences, classical cooking and local ingredients, check out Tao, 22 Pleasant St., a newly opened spot whose chef, Cara Stadler, trained in France, lived in China and is a fourth-generation Mainer. Delicious, inventive dishes include calamari, eggplant and cherry peperonata mixed with fiddlehead ferns, a Maine delicacy. Other Tao standouts like pork buns and dumplings would be at home on a dim sum menu.
L.L. Bean and the outlet stores of Freeport are 15 minutes away by car, but treasures can be found in Brunswick at Day's Antiques, 153 Park Row, Gulf of Maine Books, 134 Maine St., and Indrani's, at 149 Maine (African imports).
Also in town, an international music festival offers concerts through Aug. 4 — http://www.bowdoinfestival.org — and Maine State Music Theater is staging "Sunset Boulevard" and "42nd Street," http://msmt.org/ .
Coughlin says Brunswick has long been a great place to live and work, but "increased awareness" that it's a great place to visit "coupled with the arrival of the Amtrak in the fall, have aligned the stars, so to speak, for a really bright future."
If you go
BRUNSWICK, MAINE Located about 25 miles from Portland, 130 miles from Boston.
PEJEPSCOT HISTORICAL SOCIETY 207-729-6606, pejepscothistorical.org. Joshua Chamberlain Museum, 226 Maine St., Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sundays, 1 p.m.-4 p.m., adults, $7.50, children 6-16, $2.50. Skolfield Whittier House, 161 Park Row, Wednesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m., adults, $7.50, children 6-16, $2.50. Tours leave on the hour; last tour at 3 p.m. (Skolfield tours depart from 159 Park Row.)
BOWDOIN COLLEGE MUSEUM OF ART 245 Maine St.; 207-725-3275, bowdoin.edu/art-museum. William Wegman "Hello Nature" through Oct. 21. Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursdays until 8:30 p.m.; Sundays noon-5 p.m. Free admission.